You've probably heard the idea that all experience is neutral.
Did you know that all experience is also equal?
We think of life experience in a spectrum. There are degrees to experience, with some experiences being bigger or more profound than others. Generally we see the traumatic things that happen as being some of the bigger or more profound experiences that we've had.
What if I told you that this isn't true? What if I told you that this is part of what keeps you in pain? It's actually just a trick of human perception.
When we make something bigger than something else it naturally gets our attention and makes us focus on it. The problem with that is that it keeps you stuck focusing on the pain. The more you focus on pain, the more likely you are to identify with it.
Who here identifies as a survivor of something? Why?
The experience became profound to you. It may have even completely changed your life. Instead of simply acknowledging that and allowing the experience to just be as it is, your ego took it on and made an identity out of it. You became a survivor.
The impact that ego identification has on how you perceive every life experience you have after that is probably mostly unnoticed by you. Suddenly everything that happens in your life is another thing you have to survive. Now you're a survivor of your own life experience. You've made yourself not just a victim of your life, but also a survivor of the victim identity that you created for yourself. You created a problem and then solved it for yourself by creating two separate identities. The victim identity is the problem and the survivor identity is the solution to the problem.
Not to be sarcastic, but none of us actually survive our lives. The human body is meant to die. It's meant to be temporary. Every single one of us will have that transition experience at some point. No matter how many traumatic experiences you have in your life, you as a human being will not survive your life. Your human body will eventually die. You're not meant to survive, at least not in physical form. So why do you make that the focus of your life experience? Why did you create an identity out of that?
The ego does this stuff because it needs a way to manage the pain. It doesn't have many options. The ego is limited in terms of its strategies. It has very few of them and one of the main ones is to create an identity out of whatever it is. When the ego identifies with the pain, that's a strategy the ego is using to help you manage the pain. By identifying as as a survivor, we try to spin the pain into something positive. We think that's a positive take on things. But did you ever question what that did to your perspective of every other experience you've had in your life?
When you use that survivor identity as a filter for your life experience, now your life experience is one big traumatic experience that you have to survive. Suddenly you're surviving eating dinner every night. Every experience is now overshadowed by this identity you've take on.
Let's be clear that the ego isn't doing anything wrong. This is how the ego works. What we're doing is we're learning how to work with the ego. We're not trying to transcend it. We want to offer it some new strategies that aren't quite so painful to us. Don't make the ego out to be the bad guy or gal. It is simply doing what it does - trying to protect you.
What would happen if you dropped that identity? What would happen if you made that experience less important?
This is where you want to argue with me because you now want to defend the pain. Who am I without that identity? That's a bit of an unanswerable question from where you are right now. You won't know who you will be. The simple answer to the question is that you will be you without the identity. But that's a hard construct to understand or cement down in some way. Because you don't have a concrete answer to the question, the mind and ego will immediately offer fear of the unknown. That'll keep you stuck in the survivor identity if you let it.
You have to accept that there will be some unknown here. You're not going to know for sure until you get there and that's okay. That's part of the journey. Discovering who we are is part of the healing process. The truth is, I didn't know who I would be either when I started this process and started dropping the victim identity that I was holding on to. Honestly, I'm still me I just don't have that victim thing going on anymore. It offered me confidence and self-worth. I no longer feel less than. It offered me the ability to make my own choices and do my own thing. But my personality is essentially intact. It didn't change.
When we take that experience and we make it what it is - equal to all other experience - it offers the ability to begin to drop the identification with it. It offers us the ability to explore who we are without the pain we're hanging onto. It offers us the ability to see how that survivor identity has affected our perception of everything else in our life. I promise it's playing out in your life, you just don't see it yet.
All that causes fear, doesn't it? It causes you to wonder what you're going to run into when you start digging into things and realizing things. What you need to remember is that you planted all that there for yourself. There is nothing there that you aren't aware of. You may have forgotten about it, but it's still yours. I sometimes compare this process to digging in a closet you haven't cleaned out in 20 years. "I forgot I had that!". You do that with more than just material items. You do it with pain too. You don't realize you've done it until you go back and find those things you buried on yourself. It's just part of the process.
Why are we more likely to make an identity out of experiences we consider to be particularly traumatic?
Ego and emotion. The ego's job is to protect you. The easiest way to protect you is to make an identity out of the pain. The emotion is strong when the experience is traumatic. There is a lot of emotion related to particularly difficult experiences. In the moment, that emotion can seem quite overwhelming.
When I lost my son over 25 years ago, the experience was emotionally intense at the time. But that was 25 years ago. I don't identity as somebody who lost a baby. It's an experience I had. When I was depressed and suicidal, the emotions were also very intense when that was happening. But I don't identify as a survivor of depression. It's just an experience I had.
On the flip side of that, I am a mother to my two children, but I don't identify as a mother. It is simply a role that I play in my life. It is not who I am. I got married and became a wife. It is a role that I play. It is not who I am. My experience, good or bad, does not define me. These are good experiences that I've had that offered me roles to play in my life but I did not take them on as an ego identity.
What happens if the marriage ends? What happens when my children grow up?
The identity, even in a positive experience, will cause pain later on if or when things change. Many women experience a lot of pain when their children inevitably grow up because of the ego identity they took on when they became a mother. The ego identification with it causes pain every time, regardless of what the experience was. The more you can keep your ego out of it, the better off you're going to be.
It doesn't mean that you don't care about your children. It doesn't mean that you're not completely happy in your marriage. It just means your ego isn't attached to those roles. It means that when your children grow up, you don't have to heal from that. If your marriage ends, you may still feel the pain of the broken relationship, but you don't also have to re-identify with who you are. You maintain your sense of self throughout the experience.
I never really took on those identities when they happened. Both those things happened long before I started down this path. I didn't understand what I was doing. I just looked around me and saw how much pain others were finding themselves in when life continued and children grew up or marriages ended. I just knew I didn't want that. I saw, without really realizing what I was seeing, that people had identified with roles that weren't meant to be permanent.
If I don't have something to take care of, who am I? That's an identification with motherhood. The truth is that you always have something to take care of because you always have yourself even as the people around you come and go. If you put yourself on your own list then you never have to worry about having something to take care of. You can put your energy into yourself instead.
Your marriage is just another relationship. I hate to break it to you, but all relationships are created equal. No relationship is any more or less important than any other relationship. You make that relationship more important. And not only do you make it more important, you are also more likely to create an identity out of it. Why? Importance. Emotional importance. Experiential importance because this person is with you for more of your experiences. Mental importance because of the memories of events like your wedding day. But this relationship does not define you any more than any other relationship that you have in your life.
Do I have relationships in my life that have offered me profound experience or understanding? Yes. The trick is not to let my ego in there to create an identity out of it because it's not the relationship that's the problem - it's the identity with it. I can't identify as somebody with that type of relationship because that offers additional pain to the experience of that relationship.
When your identification is as a mother and your adult children go off into the world and offer themselves their own pain, how do you feel? It's hard to watch anybody we care about go through a difficult experience. It's even more difficult to do when we've created an identity out of that relationship. Now suddenly the well-being of that person is directly connected to who we are. It makes for a nasty internal argument and it makes it even more difficult to just let the person go through whatever it is.
The ego identification with it makes the experience more important. The ego makes it more important. Because the role of the ego is to protect you, making experiences more important does offer protection because it will keep you out of other experiences. It will make you shy away from other relationships, experiences, or connections. "This one is too important. I can't let it go." Perception matters because that is what keeps you stuck in whatever it is. That's the tether that makes you hold on.
Ego identification offers fear of having the same bad experience again. Ego identification makes that relationship more important and so you block out other relationships. Yes, there is a whole rabbit hole here around concepts like monogamy, but that's not really the point of this essay. Yes, the concept of monogamy is a form of ego identification with a relationship, but that's a topic for a different day. The point here is what happens to your identity when the marriage is unhappy or ends completely. Your ego identification with it sucks you in. It adds pain that isn't there.
Ego identification makes you tell the stories that aren't necessarily true. It changes your perception in such a way that doesn't allow you to take responsibility for yourself within the experience. You felt the way you felt. It doesn't matter what the person said or what happened. Your feelings are your own and aren't because of anything else. You said what you said, right or wrong, good or bad. It doesn't matter that you were reacting to something. You said the thing and now you've decided you shouldn't have said that. Your job is to own that and apologize for it, regardless of what the other person did or didn't do. The ego wants to stop you from doing that. The ego is trying to protect you by keeping you in the pain longer or making the pain not your responsibility. That is what creates the survivor identity that so many people take on.
When you drop the survivor identity and you stop identifying with your experiences as a whole, it allows you to be more true to who you are as an individual person in this world. It doesn't mean you can't have relationships or that you can't care about anybody. It doesn't mean that life is no longer painful or that the trauma wasn't painful or life-changing in some way. It just means that the ego isn't allowed to join the party. It helps you stop telling stories of blame, shame, guilt, and victimization. it allows you to separate yourself from your experience so that you can use your experience to see yourself more clearly.
How am I interacting with, affecting, and perceiving my own experiences? Is that helpful or painful? Is it working? Is it creating more problems? How do I fix that within myself? Not, how do I fix the outside world? How do I respond differently or better so that I don't create more pain? How do I fix my thinking so that I don't tell stories and create more pain in my own head? How do I keep my ego out of it?
Those are the questions that will give you the answers you need as you dig into things and use your life experience to reflect back to you what you need to heal. The more you take control over yourself within the experience and the less you try to control and/or identify with the experience, the more enjoyable your life will be. You will create less pain. The pain you do feel will come and go more quickly as it is meant to do. You will stop taking on everything that happens around you. That matters because that's how you learn to be okay in the life you're in.